Tuesday, September 18, 2012

10 Ways To Eat Organic On A Budget

All of us want to eat clean, uncontaminated foods, but not everybody can afford to go organic. For people seeking to boost their defenses against cancer, this dilemma can be a real headache.

Because they are more costly to produce, organic foods can easily carry a premium of anywhere between 10% and 100% over their chemically-grown counterparts. For some people – especially families with ever-hungry children or people on lower incomes – this can seem excessive.

And yet, the cost of organic food doesn’t have to be prohibitive. Today I want to show you how you can eat organic food without exploding your food budget, by carefully choosing what you buy and how you shop.

1. Be selective
It’s not an “all-or-nothing” choice; if you can’t afford to go 100% organic, pick those foods that you eat frequently and/or that may be particularly prone to carrying pesticide residues and replace these with organics.

The Environmental Working Group publishes a Shopper’s Guide featuring the 12 foods that are highest in pesticide residues (the “Dirty Dozen” features apples (worst), celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce and cucumbers) and those that are least-contaminated (the “Clean Fifteen” include mushrooms (best), watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, kiwi, eggplant, mangoes, asparagus, sweet peas, cabbage, avocado, pineapples, sweet corn and onions). Print out this list and bring it shopping with you; when buying produce that’s high on the “Dirty Dozen” list, make sure it’s organic; when choosing from the least-contaminated foods, conventionally-grown items are fine.

2. Shop creatively
Instead of buying all your food at the supermarket – where the range of organic products can be limited and the cost premium hefty – find alternative sources of clean food such as farmers’ markets, health-food co-ops, community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes or farm shops. Not all the foods sold here are necessarily 100% organic, so if this is important to you, make sure to ask. Some farmers may be transitioning to organic farming, others may already be practicing organic farming methods but their businesses may be too small to warrant the cost of organic certification.

A good place to start exploring affordable shopping options is the Green People directory from the Organic Consumer Association or the Eat Well Guide. Local Harvest is an excellent website where you can search for farmers’ markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, and the Co-op Directory Service offers a comprehensive list of local food co-ops throughout the U.S.

If you don’t have the time or energy to traipse around stores and markets to compare prices, you can do so via the internet. You can even order food – mostly dried staples like beans, rice, grains or dried fruit – online. Organic Kitchen publishes a list of online shops, and even Amazon.com sells a wide range of organic foods.

3. Shop in bulk
In some cases – especially at health-food shops – it is more cost-effective to buy dry goods loose from self-service bins rather than purchasing sealed packages. At farmers’ markets, buying a whole tray of peaches or zucchini is often less expensive than buying them individually weighed.

Large bags of frozen vegetables and fruits often cost less than smaller portions, and since they are frozen, you can use as much as you need and return the rest to the freezer for later. Bulk shopping and bulk cooking go hand-in-hand; when you see a good bulk price for something, buy it, cook it and freeze it; you’ll feel so smart!

4. Shop for seasonal, locally grown produce
Fruits and vegetables that are not in season are often transported over long distances, making them expensive. Locally grown, seasonal produce is cheaper and also better for our environment. Moreover, eating with the seasons is a great way of varying the foods you eat – and variety is a key factor in dietary cancer prevention because it ensures that you consume a vast range of nutrients.

5. Buy house-brand organics
Most mainstream supermarkets now carry organic options. Since any food with the word “organic” on its label has to go through the same certification process regardless of its brand name, you might as well save some money by buying house-brand products. You may also want to start clipping cou-pons; these can be found in store fliers, Sunday newspapers and the inside of food packages.

6. Avoid “super-foods”
Don’t let advertisers fool you into buying exotic and costly “super-foods” with promises of miracu-lous health benefits. It is important to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables; no single fruit or vegetable is superior to the rest.

7. Making organic meat affordable
Organic meat carries a significantly higher price tag than non-organically reared meat, but you can offset the higher cost by eating less of it. Due to the artificially low price of mass-produced animal foods, many of us have gotten used to eating large slabs of meat; in truth, we don’t need more than 3 oz (the size of a deck of cards) per meal to supply the nutrients our bodies need. Reducing your  meat portions shouldn’t affect your nutrient intake since organically produced animal foods are generally more nutritious than conventionally produced ones (and have the added benefit that the animals weren’t fed antibiotics or growth hormones).

You can make further savings by buying meat and eggs directly from producers (you can order it online too) rather than  supermarkets. Meat can be stretched further by combining it with pulses – for instance, in any recipe that uses ground beef, such as lasagna, Bolognese sauce or Shepherd’s Pie, you can replace half the meat with pre-cooked lentils, thus adding crunch, flavor, fiber and plant chemicals. Lastly, instead of buying prime cuts such as steak, cheaper cuts of stewing beef or tasty morsels such as ox tail or beef cheeks make delicious meals. Using meat in this way, rather than as the all-dominating centerpiece of a meal, is typical of the Mediterranean diet and one of the reasons for its healthfulness.

8. Meal planning & leftovers
When you eat organic food, you want to make sure you’re not wasting any of this precious resource! Therefore, plan your meals around your budget, make a shopping list and stick to it; do not make impulse purchases based on alluring advertisements or sudden cravings, but buy only what you need. Freeze or recycle any leftovers into another dish to avoid waste.

9. D.I.Y.
Instead of buying pre-washed, pre-chopped vegetables or fruits, get them whole, wash and chop them yourself and pack them into containers for storage in the refrigerator or freezer. Make popsicles from frozen fruit juice or pureed fruit; these are usually tastier and healthier than their shop-bought counterparts, at a fraction of the cost.

10. Avoid processed organics
Fresh organic vegetables, fruits, dairy, meat and eggs often contain higher levels of nutrients than their conventional counterparts so you are getting a greater nutritional bang for your buck. But when it comes to processed foods made with organic ingredients, just say no. While organic sodas, pretzels or cookies may appear healthier, they’re still packed with sugar, sodium and/or white flour and devoid of nutrition. Don’t waste your money: junk is junk, no matter how green.

For more ideas on “budget organics” you may be interested in this book: Fresh Choices: Easy Recipes for Pure Food When You Can’t Buy 100% Organic. It features information on organic food, tips on saving time or making cooking easier, entertaining tidbits on food history and more than 100 recipes.

Why It's Worth Eating Organic Food

As the dust following the media storm over organic food settles, it’s time to draw some conclusions. Mine is: if you want to lower your cancer risk, you’re better off choosing organics. No matter what the latest study says.

This doesn’t make organic food a cancer cure-all. Other lifestyle factors – like eating lots of plant foods, having a healthy body weight, getting regular physical activity and adequate rest, not smoking and keeping alcohol intake low – probably have a greater bearing on your cancer risk than whether you eat organic food.

But if you are eating as if your life depended on it – and there are many in the cancer community who are – then organics should be part of the picture.

The study in question, a meta-analysis of 237 research papers conducted by a group of Stanford researchers and published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded tersely that “(t)he published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

This prompted many mainstream media outlets to conclude that organic food is largely a marketing gimmick and a waste of money. The New York Times headline read: "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce," while CBS news opined: "Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests."

Granted, for a perfectly healthy person already eating a very healthy diet, organic food may offer only marginal benefit. But let’s look at the study’s assertions in the context of cancer protection:
The Stanford group’s first finding was that organically grown fruits and vegetables don’t consistently contain more vitamins and minerals than non-organically grown equivalents.

This finding is at odds with the conclusion of a comprehensive meta-analysis published last year comparing organic and non-organic foods. Essentially covering the same literature as the Stanford  team but using different and more rigorous selection criteria, these Newcastle University researchers found that organically-grown produce has on average 12% higher nutrient levels than its chemically grown counterparts, particularly in the form of antioxidant molecules that plants develop to protect themselves from pests, and which boost human health through various mechanisms.

In an in-depth critique of the Stanford study, Charles Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University, says the Stanford team does not define what it means by a food being “significantly more nutritious” than another food. As he sees it, such a food would need to deliver at least 50% higher levels of several important nutrients per calorie or serving.

“But a food does not need to be 50% more nutrient dense to deliver important health-promoting benefits,” he argues. “Achieving even a 10% increase in the levels of key nutrients in commonly consumed foods would bring about tangible health benefits across the U.S. population.”
Next, the Stanford team reports that pesticide residues, while higher in conventional than in organically grown produce, are largely below safety limits set by the U.S. government. That’s OK then, right? Well, not really.

For one, who’s to say that those “safe” amounts of pesticides really are innocuous? Do safety limits take account of “cocktails” of several pesticides and their possible synergistic effects? (While the EPA regulates pesticide residues on an individual basis, they have not been tested in combination, even though conventional farmers routinely use a wide range of products at different times of the growing cycle.)

Putting aside whether pesticide “safety limits” are really safe, organic produce contains significantly lower residues than chemically grown produce. The Stanford researchers found a 30% "risk difference" between organic and conventional food. To the casual reader this sounds like organic foods carries a relatively unimpressive 30% lower risk of exposing you to pesticides – right?

Wrong, says Charles Benbrook. To arrive at the 30% number, the Stanford team used a statistical method that understates the true risk differential, he says. Crunching the authors’ raw numbers, Benbrook finds "an overall 81% lower risk or incidence of one or more pesticide residues in the organic samples compared to the conventional samples."

Moreover, he adds: “People should be concerned about pesticide health risk, not just the number of residues they are exposed to.” Benbrook notes "a 94% reduction in health risk" from pesticides when eating organic foods. This health risk is important during stages of life when humans are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of pesticides and animal drugs, for instance before and during pregnancy, through the first years of a child’s life, when battling a degenerative disease and after 60, Benbrook highlights. These individuals may be constrained in their ability to break down and clear pesticides from their bodies and/or deal with the toxic insult caused by the residues, he says.

In the cancer context, some pesticides and drugs used to treat farm animals have hormone-like effects (see, for example, reports here and here) that may imbalance natural hormone levels and increase the risk of certain types of cancer, such as breast or prostate cancers.

Meanwhile, in comparing organically reared chicken and pork, the Stanford team found no differences in the incidence Escheria coli bacteria contamination between organically and non-organically-reared anmials. However, conventional meat was found to have a 33% higher risk for contamination with bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics than organic products.

I assume that’s because organically-reared animals aren’t allowed to be treated with antibiotics in the first place; nor can they be given synthetic growth hormones, genetically engineered ingredients or anything else to enhance their growth. This is a grave omission: by focusing on bacterial contamination, the study fails to take into account a wide range of other factors that can make animal foods healthy or unhealthy.

Another flaw of the Stanford study is that it includes no long-term investigations of people consuming organic compared to chemically grown food. The studies included ranged from two days to two years. In fact, only 17 of the 237 studies examined by the researchers involved humans at all (the rest examined the nutrient profiles and pesticide levels of various foods). And of those 17, only three involved human health outcomes (eczema, wheezing and atopy), none of them directly related to cancer.

Since cancer can take years – indeed decades – to show up, it is impossible to extrapolate from this study (or any existing study, for that matter) what the consumption of organic or non-organic foods means for our cancer risk; reliable answers can only come from long-term, large-scale population studies.

To anyone unwilling to wait 20 years for such studies to be published, here’s my two cents’ worth.

As even the Stanford paper concedes, organic produce contains more phenols – natural plant chemicals – and a more favorable omega-6-to-3 ratio of essential fatty acids, nutritional factors that are widely thought to lower our cancer risk. It also reveals that organic produce contains fewer pesticide residues. And even though conventional pesticide residues are deemed “safe,” in people whose bodies’ detoxification capacity is impaired by cancer and its treatments, even “safe” levels of pesticides may be too much. As far as I'm converned, the fewer the better.

Most of the people I know who are affected by cancer – cancer patients, survivors or their families and friends – are highly motivated individuals who are willing to do what they can to tip the odds in their favor. Rather than wait for irrefutable proof – which rarely emerges in any area of scientific enquiry – they prefer to adopt the precautionary principle: avoiding a potentially unhealthy food until it is proven harmless.

In my next blog post I’ll talk about ways to eat clean, healthy food – organic and non-organic – without breaking the bank.

This article was first published on September 7, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com. 

How A Tech Breakdown Helped Me Reboot My Life

It’s Day Five of my internet vacation, and I feel like I’m slowly getting my life back.

Like many life-altering experiences, this one wasn’t undertaken voluntarily; it was foisted upon me by torrential rain that flooded the local telephone exchange, cutting off our phone line and, with it, my access to the World Wide Web.

Having spent the first few days railing and cursing, I eventually began to embrace the experience: for the time, energy and mental space it has freed up have had uncountable positive ripple-effects which I relate below.

Monday: After several hours’ internet-outage, I call the phone company in a state of extreme agitation. The operator assures me someone will come in the next 48 hours to fix the problem.
“48 hours?!” I screech. “This is absolutely terrible -- I can’t do anything without the internet!”
My 15 year old is in shock too. He’s just got back from school and wants to chat with his Facebook friends and play an online game. His face turns ashen as I tell him there’s no internet.

“They’re working on it, right?” he keeps asking, checking the line every half hour for signs of life.
Meanwhile, I rack my brain about how I’m going to get documents to a client that I had promised for Wednesday morning. I also need to find a recipe, check directions, answer emails and buy a book. It feels as though my life has been put on hold.

Tuesday: My son sends me a text message from school: “Is the internet back up?” Afraid not.
I call my client and we agree that we I will print the documents and drop them off at her kids’ school, which is on my morning route. Surprisingly simple, really.

I still fret about all the work that isn't getting done. But, realizing that fretting won’t help, I take a walk through nearby fields and even stop to meditate for 10 minutes. I return relaxed and somewhat cheerier. Back in my home office, however, I still feel rudderless and fustrated.

It occurs to me that I can check emails on my cell phone, though I quickly discover that this isn't as gratifying as reading them on a computer screen, complete with links to seduce me into hours of web surfing. Smart-phone email is workmanlike and uninspiring; it gets the job done, but there’s little incentive to linger.

Come bedtime, there’s no temptation to surf into the wee hours and then toss and turn in bed as I digest the factoids I have just gleaned. I surprise myself by going to bed at a ridiculously early 10 pm, and sleep better than I have in months. The next morning, I feel unusually refreshed.
Wednesday : A phone repairman shows up. After poking about the wires he concludes that there is indeed a fault, but that he’s not the man for the job; a colleague will come the next day. My heart sinks further as I realize a third day of lost productivity lies ahead.

My son’s text messages from school are increasingly desperate: “Inet?” he inquires. Alas, no.
Back from school, he goes to the neighbors’ house to ask whether we can “piggy-back” off their internet connection. They get chatting about my son’s other passion: guitars. The neighbor, who collects high-end electric guitars, lends my son his finest Gibson to help him while away the hours of boredom caused by internet-deprivation. He returns home, beaming, plugs the guitar into his amplifier and strums up a storm; internet forgotten for a while.

Thursday: A different technician arrives. More poking; he tells me the problem lies in a flooded telephone exchange three miles down the road that needs to be drained; alas, a pump cannot be obtained until the next day.
At this point I’m past caring. I trudge back into my study and catch up on long-overdue filing and reading, uninterrupted by the “pings” of incoming emails and the half-hourly Facebook itch. Without constant internet distractions, I can focus more clearly and get more done.

One problem remains: I have scheduled a Skype call I cannot miss. What to do? I call a friend who lives nearby and ask if I might use his internet connection. He welcomes me warmly, sets me up and the call goes through smoothly. Afterwards, we sit on his sunny terrace, share a cup of tea and shoot the breeze; something neither of us would ordinarily make the time to do.

What does any of this have to do with cancer prevention, you may well ask? Quite a lot, I believe.

For while the internet offers a wealth of information, entertainment and support, it can become a curse, fragmenting our attention, distracting us from real-life relationships, and keeping us “switched-on” 24/7. And as research is increasingly suggesting, stress, poor-quality sleep, insufficient physical activity, and a feeling that we lack control over our lives may all increase our cancer risks. Conversely, a sense of connectedness with others and of control over our lives, joyful movement and calm mindfulness may bolster our physical defenses against disease.

These factors can even have nutritional implications, for when we’re stressed, rushed or tired we’re more likely to make unwise food choices that provide an environment in which cancer cells flourish. If, on the other hand, we can take time to plan meals, shop for and prepare healthy food, and enjoy delicious home-cooked meals -- ideally with people whose company we enjoy -- this can boost our overall health and well-being.

Friday: I'm back online; the fault has been repaired. As I watch 329 pent-up emails flooding my inbox, I realise my internet vacation is over. I also notice how few of these emails seem important. Turns out, I didn't miss much these past five days.

Looking back over the week, I realize I need to change the way I use the internet. Of course I’m not going to swear off the web altogether; I need it to communicate with clients, to research and write, to stay in touch with family and friends, to keep up with news and views and to buy plane tickets and birthday presents.

But I do need to stop it running my life.

One way to do this – as suggested in this excellent article in the Harvard Business Review – might be to schedule specific times of day to check emails (plus Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and taking “mini-vacations” from these feeds during the intervening hours.

But can I muster the discipline? As with all unhealthy temptations – be they email-checking, sugary snacks or cigarettes – old habits can die hard and potential pretexts for digressions abound.

“The hardest part is resisting the temptation to check during your off-email hours,” writes the HBR article's author, Peter Bregman. “My advice? When you have the urge to check your email, check yourself instead. What's going on for you? What are you feeling? Take a deep breath and relax into an undistracted moment.”

Excellent advice that I am keen to apply. Though considering that I'm writing this post at 8 pm on a Friday, I may still have quite a way to go...

This article was originally published on May 25, 2012 on PsychologyToday.com.